Eric's victory in the battle of Svolder was his most celebrated achievement.
Painting by Otto Sinding (1842-1909)
Eirik Hĺkonsson or Eric of Norway (960s-1020s) was earl of Lade, ruler of Norway and earl of Northumbria. He was the bastard eldest son of earl Hákon Sigurđarson. He participated in the Battle of Hjörungavágr, the Battle of Svolder and the conquest of England.
The most important historical sources on Eirik are the 12th and 13th century kings' sagas, including Heimskringla, Fagrskinna, Ágrip, Knýtlinga saga, Historia Norvegić, the Legendary Saga of St. Olaf and the works of Oddr Snorrason and Theodoricus monachus. The Anglo-Saxon sources are scant but valuable as they represent contemporary evidence. The most important are the 11th century Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Encomium Emmae but Eirik is also mentioned by the 12th century historians Florence of Worcester, William of Malmesbury and Henry of Huntingdon.
A significant amount of poetry by Eric's skalds is preserved in the kings' sagas and represents contemporary evidence. The most important are the Bandadrápa of Eyjólfr dáđaskáld and the works of Halldórr ókristni and Ţórđr Kolbeinsson. Eirik also had Hallfređr vandrćđaskáld, Gunnlaugr ormstunga, Hrafn Önundarson, Skúli Ţorsteinsson and Ţórđr Sjáreksson as court poets.
The principal sources on Eric's youth are Fagrskinna and Heimskringla. They relate that Eirik was the son of Hákon Sigurđarson and a woman of low birth whom Hákon bedded during a sojourn in Uppland. Hákon cared little for the boy and gave him to a friend of his to raise. On one occasion when Eirik was 11 or 12 years old he and his foster father had harboured their ship right next to earl Hákon. Then Hákon's closest friend, Skopti, arrived and asked Eirik to move away so that he could harbour next to Hákon as he was used to. When Eirik refused, Hákon was infuriated by the boy's pride and sternly ordered him away. Humiliated, Eirik had no choice but to obey. In the following winter he avenged the humiliation by chasing down Skopti's ship and killing him. This was Eric's first exploit, as commemorated by his skald Eyjólfr dáđaskáld who mentions the incident in his Bandadrápa.
The above verse gives some idea of the difficulty faced by historians in using skaldic poetry as a source. The verse, assuming it is correctly attributed, informs us that Eirik killed a man named Skopti in a sea battle in his youth. But we are entirely dependent on the kings' sagas to tell us who this Skopti was and what reasons Eirik had to fight him. Many skaldic verses give even less specific information in even more ornate language.
The sagas say that after killing Skopti, Eirik sailed south to Denmark where he was received by king Harald Bluetooth. After a winter's stay in Denmark, Harald granted Eirik earldom over Romerike and Vingulmark - areas in the south of Norway long under Danish influence. In Heimskringla this information is supported with a somewhat vague verse from Bandadrápa.
Eirik gives quarter to a handsome Jomsviking after the battle of Hjörungavágr.
Illustration by Christian Krohg.
The Battle of Hjörungavágr was Eric's first major confrontation. The battle was a semi-legendary naval battle that took place in the late 10th century between the earls of Lade and a Danish invasion fleet. The battle is described in the Norse kings' sagas—such as Heimskringla—as well as in Jómsvíkinga saga and Saxo Grammaticus' Gesta Danorum. Those late literary accounts are fanciful but historians believe that they contain a kernel of truth. Some contemporary skaldic poetry alludes to the battle, including verses by Ţórđr Kolbeinsson and Tindr Hallkelsson. According to Heimskringla, Eirik, apparently reconciled with his father, commanded 60 ships in the battle and emerged victorious. After the battle he gave quarter to many of the Jomsvikings, including Vagn Ákason.
The fortress of Ladoga was originally built in medieval times.
In 995, as Óláfr Tryggvason seized power in Norway, Eirik was forced into exile in Sweden. He allied himself with Olof of Sweden and Sweyn Forkbeard whose daughter, Gyđa, he married. Using Sweden as his base he launched a series of raiding expeditions into the east. Harrying the lands of king Vladimir I of Kiev, Eirik looted and burned down the town of Ladoga (Old Norse Aldeigja). There are no written continental sources to confirm or refute this but archaeological evidence showing a burning of Ladoga in the late 10th century was unearthed by Soviet archaeologists in the 1980s.
Eirik also plundered in western Estonia (ON Ađalsýsla) and the island of Saaremaa (ON Eysýsla). According to the Fagrskinna summary of Bandadrápa he fought vikings in the Baltic and raided Östergötland during the same time.
Eric's men board the Long Serpent.
In the Battle of Svolder in 1000, Eirik, Sweyn and Olof, ambushed king Óláfr Tryggvason by the island of Svolder. The place cannot now be identified, as the formation of the Baltic coast has been much modified in the course of subsequent centuries. Svolder was an island probably on the North German coast, near Rügen.
During the summer, Olaf had been in the eastern Baltic. The allies lay in wait for him at the island of Svolder on his way home. The Norwegian king had with him seventy-one vessels, but part of them belonged to an associate, Jarl Sigvaldi, a chief of the Jomsvikings, who was an agent of his enemies, and who deserted him. Olaf's own ships went past the anchorage of Eirik and his allies in a long column without order, as no attack was expected. The king was in the rear of the whole of his best vessels. The allies allowed the bulk of the Norwegian ships to pass, and then stood out to attack Olaf.
Olaf refused to flee, and turned to give battle with the eleven ships immediately about him. The disposition adopted was one which is found recurring in many sea-fights of the middle ages where a fleet had to fight on the defensive. Olaf lashed his ships side to side, his own, the Long Serpent, the finest war-vessel as yet built in the north, being in the middle of the line, where her bows projected beyond the others. The advantage of this arrangement was that it left all hands free to fight, a barrier could be formed with the oars and yards, and the enemy's chance of making use of his superior numbers to attack on both sides would be, as far as possible, limited — a great point when all fighting was with the sword, or with such feeble missile weapons as bows and javelins. Olaf, in fact, turned his eleven ships into a floating fort.
Locations of Eric's battles and raids in Scandinavia and the Baltic.
Modern borders shown for reference.
The Norse writers, who are the main authorities, gave all the credit to the Norwegians, and according to them all the intelligence of Olaf's enemies, and most of their valour, were to be found in Eirik. They say that the Danes and Swedes rushed at the front of Olaf's line without success. Eirik attacked the flank. His vessel, the Iron Ram (ON Járnbarđinn), was "bearded", that is to say, strengthened across the bows by bands of iron, and he forced her between the last and last but one of Olaf's line. In this way the Norwegian ships were carried one by one, till the Long Serpent alone was left. At last she too was overpowered. Olaf leapt into the sea holding his shield edgeways, so that he sank at once and the weight of his hauberk dragged him down.
Eirik captured Olaf's ship, the Long Serpent, and steered it from the battle, an event dwelled upon by his court poet Halldórr ókristni.
After the battle of Svolder, Eirik became, together with his brother Sveinn Hĺkonsson, governor of Norway under Sweyn Forkbeard from 1000 to 1012. Eric's son, Hákon Eiríksson, continued in this position to 1015. Eirik and Sveinn consolidated their rule by marrying their sister Bergljót to Einarr Ţambarskelfir, gaining a valuable advisor and ally.
Fagrskinna relates that "there was good peace at this time and very prosperous seasons. The jarls maintained the laws well and were stern in punishing offences."
During his rule of Norway, Eric's only serious rival was Erlingr Skjálgsson. Too powerful and cautious to touch but not powerful enough to seek open confrontation he maintained an uneasy peace and alliance with the earls throughout their rule.
According to Theodoricus monachus, Eirik pledged to adopt Christianity if he emerged victorious from the battle of Svolder. Oddr Snorrason's Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar has a more elaborate version of the story where Eirik replaces an image of Thor on the prow of his ship with a Christian cross. There is no skaldic poetry to substantiate this but most of the sagas agree that Eirik and Sveinn adopted Christianity, at least formally. Fagrskinna says:
"These jarls had had themselves baptised, and remained Christian, but they forced no man to Christianity, but allowed each to do as he wished, and in their day Christianity was greatly harmed, so that throughout Upplönd and in over Ţrándheimr almost everything was heathen, though Christianity was maintained along the coast."
Adopting Christianity was no doubt a politically advantageous move for the earls since they were allied with the Christian rulers of Sweden and Denmark. Instituting freedom of religion was also a shrewd political move after Óláfr Tryggvason's violent missionary activity. Eric's religious conviction as a Christian was probably not strong. While the court poets of Eric's rivals, Óláfr Tryggvason and Óláfr Haraldsson, censored heathen kennings from their poetry and praised their lord as a Christian ruler, all surviving court poetry devoted to Eirik is entirely traditional. The Bandadrápa, composed sometime after 1000, is explicitly pagan - its refrain says that Eirik conquers lands according to the will of the heathen gods. Even the poetry of Ţórđr Kolbeinsson, composed no earlier than 1016, has no indication of Christian influence. According to Historia Norwegie and Ágrip, Eirik actively worked to uproot Christianity in Norway but this is not corraborated by other sources.
In 1014 or 1015 Eirik left Norway and joined Canute the Great for his campaign in England. Judging from Ţórđr Kolbeinsson's Eiríksdrápa their fleets met off the English coast (in 1015) but the chronology of the various sources is difficult to reconcile and some scholars prefer placing their meeting in 1014 in Denmark. At that time Canute was young and inexperienced but Eirik was "an experienced warrior of tested intelligence and fortune" (Fagrskinna) and, in the opinion of Frank Stenton, "the best adviser that could have been found for a young prince setting out on a career of conquest".
The Scandinavian invasion fleet landed at Sandwich in midsummer 1015 where it met little resistance. Canute's forces moved into Wessex and plundered in Dorset, Wiltshire and Somerset. Alderman Eadric Streona assembled an English force of 40 ships and submitted to Canute. The Encomium Emmae is the only English source which gives any information on Eric's actions at this time but its account of his supposed independent raids is vague and does not fit well with other sources.
In early 1016 the Scandinavian army moved over the Thames into Mercia, plundering as it went. Prince Edmund attempted to muster an army to resist the invasion but his efforts were not successful and Canute's forces continued unhindered into Northumbria where Uhtred the Bold, earl of Northumbria, was murdered. The great north English earldom was given by Canute to Eirik after he had won control of the north. After conquering Northumbria the invading army turned south again towards London. Before they arrived King Ethelred the Unready died (on April 23) and Prince Edmund was chosen king.
Following Ethelred's death the Scandinavian forces besieged London. According to the Encomium Emmae the siege was overseen by Eirik and this may well be accurate. The Legendary Saga of St. Olaf indicates that Eirik was present at the siege of London and a verse by Ţórđr Kolbeinsson says that Eirik fought a battle with Ulfkytel "west of London".
After several battles, Canute and Edmund reached an agreement to divide the kingdom but Edmund died a few months later. And in 1017 Canute was undisputed king of all England. He divided the kingdom into four parts; Wessex he kept for himself, East-Anglia he gave to Thorkell, Northumbria to Eirik and Mercia to Eadric. Later the same year Canute had Eadric executed as a traitor. According to the Encomium Emmae he ordered Eirik to "pay this man what we owe him" and he chopped off his head with his axe.
Eirik remained as earl of Northumbria until his death. His earlship is primarily notable in that it is never recorded that he ever fought with the Scots or the Britons of Strathclyde, who were usually constantly threatening Northumbria. Eirik is not mentioned in English documents after 1023. According to English sources he was exiled by Canute and returned to Norway. This is very unlikely as there are no Norse records of his supposed return. Eric's successor as earl, Siward, can not be confirmed as being earl of Northumbria until 1033 so Eric's death can not strictly be placed more precisely than between 1023 and 1033. According to the Norse sources he died of a hemorrhage after having his uvula cut (a procedure in medieval medicine) either just before or just after a pilgrimage to Rome.